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Rory Bremner


Rory BremnerBehind the gags


Rory Bremner FKC (King’s, Modern Languages, 1984) is a comedian and satirist who is well known in the UK for his impersonations of politicians and celebrities. He recently returned to King’s, to perform at a fundraising dinner in support of the Students' Union. This is the full version of the interview that he gave to King's alumni magazine, In Touch.

You’ve come back to King’s a few times recently – how has the College changed?

It’s that old thing of it being a wonderful building, but trying to make it more practical. When I applied to come here, the King’s prospectus had a beautiful picture taken from the South Bank, showing Somerset House, and I thought ‘that looks like a great place to study’. It was only when I got here that I realised the King’s French and German Department was actually the bit bolted on to the side that looks like a wine rack.


We used to have tutorials up in the loft. Spring was the worst time, because that was when the pigeons were starting to get really randy. You’d be listening to a lecturer and they’d be competing with all this coooo coooo-ing.


But it’s the challenge you have with all these old buildings. What was done with the South Range looked very impressive – it’s about making the most of the space, and it’s important that it was for the benefit of the students. It was very higgledy-piggledy when I was here. I think part of the secret was to open up some of the areas, and the great joy of a building like this is that you can knock through and suddenly you find there’s a whole space that you never knew about. I think they’ve used the space quite imaginatively.


You recently came back and did the charity event – what motivated you to do that?

It’s just about putting something back. I enjoyed my time here and a lot of what I do is still informed by what I studied when I was here.  The translations I’ve done in the last five or six years I’ve done with help from my previous German Professors – firstly David Glass who sadly died a couple of years ago, and then Professor JJ White helped me a tremendous amount with the Brecht translation [in April 2007 Rory was involved with The Big Brecht Fest at the Young Vic Theatre, celebrating the work of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Rory translated one of the plays, the comedy of manners A Respectable Wedding.] It was like a tutorial from the old days.

I owe my love of language and love of literature to my time at King’s. I’m still driving on the petrol that King’s put in the tank.

 I’m still driving on the petrol that King’s put in the tank.

I’m grateful for that and I believe in education and in King’s as an institution, so to be in a position to give something back is a privilege and I owed it to the College. And it’s nice to show that students can go on to different things, not just academia.

When did you get the idea that humour and satire could be more than a hobby, that you could make a career from this?


I used to live in Edinburgh, and from 1979 to 1982 if you were around during the Edinburgh Festival you would see everybody from Rowan Atkinson to Rik Mayall, Ade Edmonson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery, Clive Anderson and Julian Clary.  I loved what they did. 


King’s gave me the chance – I was in so many plays and reviews. In the first year I did something like five different shows. Just as much as studying I loved the chance that King’s gave me for theatre. I was spotted doing a Bill McLaren impression and asked to join the University of London drama group, and we went to Edinburgh with a show called The Importance of Being Varnished.  


You were part of a vibrant city...

Studying in London. I remember walking out into the evening traffic in the Strand, and on the Evening Standard newsstands the headline was that John Lennon had been shot. I remember being really struck by the immediacy of walking out of a lecture where you’ve been studying Eighteenth-century literature, and two minutes later the world strikes you and you are in the middle of a capital city with all of its excitement and buzz. You were part of this vibrant city where the evening paper would hit the streets and there was the rest of the world.

By 1984 I was going to lectures and working in the library in the day, and in the evening I’d be performing in cabaret venues in London. Sometimes the same night you’d be zooming around London doing two or three cabarets, but that for me was the beauty of being here – the fact that I could go to tutorials in the day and be on the London cabaret circuit in the evening. I don’t think I could have done that anywhere else. 


That’s where I was spotted, because researchers used to go through the London cabaret circuit like the Japanese whaling fleet trawling for talent, and somehow or other I got caught in the net. In the week that I did my Finals I got a call from Weekending, which was a Radio 4 topical satire show, and they wanted me to come on and do Neil Kinnock and Michael Heseltine and Ronald Reagan and a few others.


One of the things about you is what a long career you’ve had.  How have you managed it?


Well, I suppose that’s partly to do with doing topical material. I began to think that if you can do voices you should be able to do something more with them, because after a while doing impressions it’s a bit like a dog standing on its back legs. You think ‘that’s fine, but so what?’  I began to take more of an interest in the characters that were interesting to do, and I was drawn towards politics. What I was doing wasn’t particularly radical but it was topical comedy, and so you had to change as the characters were

changing. By being topical it meant you kept up with what was going on and kept a relevance. 


Characters in politics. I find it difficult now because the characters have changed, but nobody’s arrived to replace them yet – we’re in a very thin age at the moment for characters in UK politics. In the last six months we’ve lost Tony Blair and John Prescott and David Blunkett and Charles Kennedy and Michael Howard, and they’ve been replaced by people like John Denham and John Hutton and George Osborne. It’s not necessarily a value judgement, but in terms of characters they’re just not as colourful. Satire thrives on grotesques, and the trouble is that we don’t have the grotesques in politics right now, with the exception of [UK Prime Minister] Gordon Brown who’d fit that criterion. Other than that we’ve just got these rather bland, anonymous politicians.


Something else that drew me back to King’s was my involvement in opposition to the Iraq War. I would go to public lectures in the War Studies Department by people like the American Head of Homeland Security. And I talked to people in the War Studies Department about things like the history of Iraq, to research material for [Rory’s TV show] Bremner Bird and Fortune. It was like tapping back in to something which is more lasting than the kind of press we have at the moment. We were at the forefront of opposition to the War: our audience grew by a million viewers during the run of the show in 2003. And we were tracking the events as they happened, so that again made us relevant.


 Satire exists when it needs to exist..

Bob Geldof maintains that politics exists when it needs to exist, and I think the same is true of satire. Satire exists when it needs to exist, and I think during the Iraq War a lot of people came to watch the show: you hope that not only did it make them laugh but also it contained some interesting history and facts and on Iraq which they weren’t getting elsewhere. 



What do you see as the role of the satirist, or the purpose of satire?


I don’t think you should make great claims about satire and that’s why I’ve often used the words ‘topical comedy’ instead, because as soon as you set yourself up as some kind of fount of wisdom you start to take yourself too seriously.


But I feel that a responsibility is put on our shoulders by people who in some way feel that we give them a voice. You feel you’ve got to move the debate on – that it’s not just good enough to make people laugh, you need to make people think at the same time through what you unearth and the things you find out.


Molière talks about ‘correcting human behaviour by making people laugh’, though some days I feel that that’s a little too grandiose and pompous.


I’ve been asked whether I think that by making people laugh about things you’re stopping them properly venting their anger by protesting in the streets, which is a good question. We don’t really take to the streets in England unless it’s about something like hunting or The Archers. We’re a very curious country.


Has there ever been a time when you think your personal politics has impinged on your ability to do good comedy?


I think sometimes I do have a tendency to take things too seriously, but that’s a by-product of trying to understand. One of my mantras is that you have to make sense of things before you make nonsense of them.


 I should probably have a picture of Alan Titchmarsh above my door to remind myself that I’m hardly Swift.

If you go back to someone like Voltaire, satire is about testing an idea or a philosophy or a policy to destruction, just as Swift did in A Modest Proposal, when he suggested that the solution to the Irish famine was that they should eat their babies. If I ever start to feel pompous I just think about what Swift did and what Voltaire did, and there’s me just doing sketches about Sky weathermen and BBC sports presenters. I should probably have a picture of Alan Titchmarsh above my door to remind myself that I’m hardly Swift.



What’s the process in coming up with sketches, when you’re working on a weekly show?


There’s a lot of panic about it but I believe that people do need to have stress in their lives or there’s no incentive. We have to write the show on Monday and Tuesday, there’s no way around it. On Wednesday we’ll go and film it on location somewhere and on Thursday we’ll go to a studio, and then on Friday you write the monologues.


So that’s the logistics. But as far as the creation is concerned you do as much research as you can – you’re trying to absorb information as quickly as possible and make sense of it, to turn it round and make nonsense of it.


How do you introduce a new character, or decide who’s worth investing in?


Quite often you have no option, like when Diana did the Panorama interview. Two days later I was wearing a black dress with black eyeliner and big blue eyes.


Other times there is a character you’ve been playing with in your mind. So it’s quite a random process but all the time it’s informed by who is in the news, who’s do-able and who’s caught your eye. With some people, like the weatherman Francis Wilson, you start to think ‘will this mean anything to a lot of people?’ But then you think ‘no, but it’ll mean a lot to the people who’ve seen him’.


What do you need to do to ‘get’ that person?


You need to hear them in your ‘mind’s ear’ – that’s why doing David Cameron is so difficult, because I can’t really hear him in my head. It’s like having a musical ear – it’s being able to hear a character when they’re not there, to be able to hear what they sound like and to hear their voice. I can hear Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in my head.


How do you capture their mannerisms?


I hate looking in mirrors, so I never practice in front of one. It’s instinctive, it’s like you’re watching a movie in your head of a character.  So when I’m being Rowan Williams all I can see is Rowan William’s face, but I’m providing the soundtrack.


How important is it that you look like someone?


I rely on my make-up artist Helen for that – she’s brilliant.  Sometimes I fall asleep in make-up as Rowan Williams and I wake up as Trevor Macdonald, which is a bit of a shock.


It’s often easier to do characters for the first time in make-up.

You might be impersonating Jonathan Ross, for example, using a Jonathan Ross set, wearing the Jonathan Ross suit with the Jonathan Ross wig, and all of that supplies context, not only for the audience (because the more clues you can give the more you can fool them), but it also makes it easier for you.


Who do you use as a sounding board in matters of taste?


Sometimes I bounce ideas off John Bird or John Fortune or Geoff my producer, but you have to trust your instincts. The trouble is that if someone decides to take a joke the wrong way then it’s almost futile to discuss it, because a joke exists in a particular context. Victoria Wood said that if something is funny it’s not bad taste, and if it’s bad taste it’s not funny. The line shifts all the time. And in order to give offence, offence also has to be taken by somebody – the taking of offence is an active part in the process, where the person who caused the offence in the first place may have had no intention to do so.


Do you hanker after more academic work – would you like to come back to study?


In many ways I think I would. There are areas where I’d love to learn more and to be able to communicate more. The thing about King’s and other universities is that you have the time to study things you really enjoy, and you have time to study it in depth, which you don’t really have for the rest of your life. If I was coming back it would be to study something for the love of it. It would be lovely to give space to your curiosity.


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